The numbers are encouraging.
In April 1997, 13,164 Alaska families were receiving aid from the Alaska Temporary Assistance program, the successor to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) born of welfare reform legislation passed in 1996.
By November 2000, 6,847 Alaska families received temporary assistance.
That's a drop of 56 percent.
''I think it's been a success for the vast majority of people,'' says Karen Perdue, state commissioner of Health and Social Services.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 passed on the principle that work is better than welfare. Temporary assistance programs replaced AFDC in the 50 states, and put a 60-month limit on assistance benefits. The goal was to break welfare cycles and get aid recipients into the work force.
At the same time, the act aimed to make sure that work would allow people to support themselves and their families. One reform, for example, eased rules for vehicle ownership by aid recipients. Under old welfare rules, a decent car could knock a recipient off the rolls even if reliable transportation was key to a job or child care.
Reform has worked so far, buoyed by a strong economy that has increased demand for labor and tended to raise wages. Many Alaskans have found that hard work and some supplementary assistance food stamps or food banks, Medicaid or Denali KidCare for health insurance have given them a fighting chance.
''Reaching for Independence,'' a study of 694 Alaskans who left the temporary assistance rolls between October 1997 and October 1999, found that 86 percent said they would rather work than receive public assistance. Still, 30 percent had returned to temporary assistance at some point. Sixty-two percent said caseworkers required them to work, look for work or attend job training.
Now, however, the cases begin to get tougher, and Ms. Perdue and her colleagues are worried about those Alaskans who face an array of problems that landing a job just won't fix. These may include disabilities or raising a disabled child, drug or alcohol addictions, mental illness or domestic violence situations.
The welfare reform act anticipated this by allowing states to exempt up to 20 percent of their caseloads from the five-year limit. But as Ms. Perdue points out, as the overall caseload shrinks, the hard-case caseload doesn't. By the cutoff date in 2002, the hard cases may be more than 20 percent of the total.
So Ms. Perdue has asked the Legislature for authority to spend $2.8 million in federal money to provide intensive services for long-term clients, including drug and alcohol treatment; $1.8 million in federal money for a 24-hour program to help clients through day-to-day problems to keep their jobs and perhaps land better ones; and, most importantly, a change in state law to allow case workers or their supervisors to decide exemptions to the five-year limit on a case-by-case basis. The exemptions would no longer be limited to 20 percent.
These requests deserve a fair hearing. Lawmakers will and should take a close look at the amount of the appropriations. But they shouldn't hesitate to lift the 20 percent rule and allow the state to apply rules of commonsense and decency to each case. Such rules often were lacking under the old welfare regime, which tied caseworkers' hands and made it harder for Alaskans to return to work.
No one wants to keep freeloaders on the rolls. As Ms. Perdue said, those who don't try to get off welfare won't be exempt. But those who do what they can and still need help should have it for themselves and their children.
Shorter welfare rolls are better for everybody. But we should also remember that any community can be judged by how it treats the least fortunate of its citizens.
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